Today’s story in the New York Times by Joe Sharkey (about how iPads are changing the economics of hotel Wi-Fi) may be news to many, but to me, its not. The crushing of WiFi networks by the influx of iPads and smartphones being used by travelers, road warriors and meeting/conference attendees at hotels is nothing new. Back in the early days of hotel WiFi access per night was under 10 percent of the available room nights . . . not the actual room nights rented. Now it’s over 60, if not 70 percent of the rooms rented. Those subtle differences in how things are tracked change the picture a lot. Now add in multiple devices, especially in larger properties and you, well, get (um..don’t get) the picture.
Hotels usually had a DSL line or maybe a T1. Then they went up in speed, but as you can imagine, if you did the actual math, the line speed ended up at about dialup like speeds, and that point in the story isn’t really new. As a matter of fact that problem has existed since hotel broadband began and then added WiFi not for convenience, but because wireless is less expensive than retrofitting the property with wires. Electricians and IT networking guys aren’t cheap, and it costs a lot more to rewire, than to go wireless, making this all a dollars and sense game (pun intended.)
So let’s talk about what wasn’t said.
1. Hotel WiFi equipment doesn’t keep up with the times (no, not the NY Times) the current state of the art technology. While iBahn’s CEO can point to the adoption of the iPad, one culprit ommitted is the fact that many hotel WiFi deployments use 802.11 b or b/g radio networks. The way 802.11b works is the network moves overall as fast as the slowest device connected. Put someone on at the end of the hall with an aging laptop or WiFi card only running 802.11b and the network speeds drop from a theoretical throughput of 11 megs to whatever the device can pull.
2. There’s a lack of packet filtering and packet inspection being used. I don’t mean to restrict download speeds, which has been the answer deployed by some hotel chains, especially those using Nomadix gateways that always seem to top out at 500kbps when I come across one. I’m talking more along the lines of technology that manages enterprise wide traffic, especially to fight downloading and file sharing using P2P technology that swarms for pirated content.
3. Not enough bandwidth. Most hotels guests are lucky if the hotel they’re staying in has a 10 meg symmetrical pipe. Often times when I ask I learn that they have a bonded T1 that offers 3megs up and down. I used to laugh when I heard that, as my house had one supplied by Covad in a trade for services relationship for three years. I used that as MY own pipe while my family and staff used the bigger, fatter cable modem pipe.
The problem is that the suppliers of Internet to hotels, who are also charged with managing the infrastructure, bid on the contracts over multiple years. They don’t often spend much to upgrade the services or the equipment during the life of the contract. Wayport, which was bought by AT&T, used to be a major player in the hotel bandwidth and WiFi game. Their secret sauce was bandwidth on demand, and that provided for usually a better experience, especially when hotels advised them on the anticipated guest and conference attendee size in advance, so they could provision circuits. That’s not something that many other providers even consider.
But today, companies like GuestTek, LodgeNet and many others who supply and manage in room guest interactive services (data, voice, video, temperature, etc.) are facing a declining market on overall revenue. Their technology is usually based on copper wire and an outmoded idea called Long Range DSL, that allows for boosting the signal inside large buildings. It works to a point, but the whole architecture is flawed for todays use. Sure the signal gets there, but when the network is getting slammed, it just takes a very, very long time. But their revenue, largely based on overly expensive movie rentals (i.e. porn and kid flicks) is declining and The iPad and iTunes in general are the leading culprits, plus services like Hulu, Netflix, with Spotify and other services for music more and more are all slicing and dicing revenue away from them. Their answer: slow down the downloads, make it harder for outside content to come in so you pay some mid teens price for a movie.
What hotels need to do to improve the guest Wi-Fi experience
My proposal to one smart hotel GM I know: install Apple TV’s make them available for free. Add the extra cost for them into the room night. After 20 nights at $5.00 more it’s a break-even proposition on the AppleTV, plus it lets guests download and watch what they want from their device. Download a movile while the iPad’s on in a meeting at the office, take it back to the hotel. That’s no different than ordering a pizza and having it delivered. But that’s exactly what the interactive services companies don’t want to hear. To combat that they’re offering all new hardware to get the network up to speed. But that only solves the problem for today, not tomorrow.
Hotels need to change how they look at Internet and overall mobile device connectivity, as it’s not just about installing a fat pipe like Seattle’s Hotel 1000 did. They have a 100 meg pipe from XO and it works great. But the installation, done by pal Chris McKewon’s XCeptional Networks was done using all Cisco equipment. The network rocks, even working in the elevator. Between their wired network and wireless technology, it’s hands down my favorite technology ready hotel in North America, while the Andaz in London wins the prize in Europe. It’s the networking that matters, and how it’s managed.
But to go one step farther, it’s also mobile coverage inside hotels that’s in need of improvement, where cell service can be upgraded through deployments of neutral carrier DAS systems that bring in and manage all of the mobile operators’ signals.
Another solution is to make FEMTOcells available to guests for rooms with spotty coverage. I call in hotel mobile coverage “cell phone roulette” when I stay in San Francisco at the Intercontinental, a property that usually has exceptional bandwidth, unless President Obama is there, or just left, as the hotel always has to do some “repairs” after his stay there. In large cities, cell towers are not always near large hotels. In SF the problem is really bad and the fact that the Bay is on one side and the ocean on the other makes antenna tower placement tricky. Depending on which side of the hotel my room is on impacts which mobile operator has better coverage. And, since most tower radios point down, being on anything over the second floor already places us all at a handicap. Add to that the totem pole effect of GSM and AT&T was doomed from the start in SF, meaning hip, early adopter iPhone users were bound to have a bad experience.
That all means that even with mobile data, speeds and often connectivity will be challenged.
So, what does this all mean? Quite simply, hotels need to do more of the following:
1. Upgrade to 802.11n/g/b/a radios. Stop slowing down the networks by using old technology.
2. Rooms need to have both wireless and wired access. The hotels in Europe I stay in, boutique or chain often have both. With wired access you avoid the 802.11b problem or you can use your own travel router (I carry one all the time).
3. Hotel networks between public areas, conference rooms and guest rooms all need to have their own “elastic” or “expandable” pipes. Let’s face it. If the hotel is going to be full you don’t run out of water or bars of soap, towels or other essentials. Well bandwidth is one now.
4. Hotels need to invest in carrier neutral DAS systems. The offload of WiFi traffic by operators is going to put more strain on hotel WiFi and broadband. But guests also want to use their own mobile phones, not the hotel room phones.
5. Hotels need to take more control of their guest experience. Outsourcing your technology today to third parties is like turning your check in experience over to outsiders. Especially when your most frequent guests know the technology better than they do.
Conclusion: UPGRADE is the idea, but doing it right, well, that’s a different story.
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About Andy Abramson
Andy is the founder of Comunicano, Inc., an advertising, marketing and public relations agency, based in Del Mar, CA. He co-hosts the “World Technology RoundUp” on a daily basis and the weekly audio magazine, “Speculations” with Ken Rutkowski on KenRadio. His passion for wine led him to create a wine-oriented website called Winescene. You can read Andy’s posts, including this one, on his blog, VoipWatch. Follow Andy on Twitter: @andyabramson.